Issa Adeli - Political Researcher (@issa_adeli)
The war in Ukraine unraveled new trends in global security. Simple weapons in the first weeks of the war were of decentralized nature that could be used with minimum training. They made “citizen soldiers”, just like “citizen journalists”, out of ordinary people right off the bat. Another trend of decentralization is transnational sanctions which are initiated by increased global interdependencies in people-to-people communications, unlike international sanctions which are state-to-state or top-to-bottom.
These two trends both have enabled citizens to be more proactive on the battlefields and beyond. But there is a problem: as they are highly decentralized and in a more network-like manner rather than being hierarchal, they need a unifying discourse for actors to cooperate, more than if it was a formal arrangement. Although the discourse of territorial integrity and political independence have a history of centuries, the United Nations (UN) effectively promoted it after the Second World War and it is now playing an important role here.
In the early days of the war in Ukraine, some people asked why this war grabbed more attention than others like War in Yemen or Afghanistan. Russia’s invasion violated the most important principle of the United Nations, principle of territorial integrity and political independence, more well-established than human rights or humanitarian principles. For seven decades, the UN has been based on this discourse and now it is unifying people in Ukraine and around the world with its formidable power.
Discourse and the War
Discourse is the practice of imbuing reality with meaning. No social practice, including war, is discourseless (link). Discourse is not an intention but the structural force that shapes intentions. While discourse is usually created by power and can be controlled by it, its internal logic and the context are also important. After WW2, the principles underpinned by the UN, such as respecting "territorial integrity or political independence", embodied in the first chapter of the UN Charter (link), created a security discourse among citizens of nations, which now came to help Ukraine in this war. This discourse convinced people in Ukraine and around the world that whatever Russia’s geopolitical concerns, nothing can justify violating a country’s territorial integrity.
Nearly eight months into this war, it has become clear that Russia will not win. As announced before February 24, 2022 (link), Putin's four objectives of this war were: denazification, which means regime change; demilitarization, which means limiting the Ukrainian army; neutralizing Kyiv, which means preventing Ukraine from joining NATO; and finally gaining the Ukrainian government’s recognition of the separation of Donbas and Crimea (link), which again requires regime change because Zelensky is highly unlikely to accept the annexation of Donbas and Crimea. Currently, the first two objectives are clearly unachievable. The third one is oxymoronic as it requires, from a Ukrainian perspective, guarantees from countries such as America, Britain, or Turkey, and it practically engages NATO to fight for Ukraine in case of any future Russian aggression. The last goal will only be attained by installing a puppet state in Kyiv, which now seems impossible. Russia may occupy more territory and secure more tactical victories, but it cannot turn these military victories into political concessions.
Russia could have won the war only if it had happened within a few days and the West did not make time to impose such a considerable number of sanctions. Occupying the port of Odesa within a few days could have paved the way for Russian troops to enter Moldova (link). Moldova has a Russian minority in the Transnistria region, and Russian troops are already there as a pretext for keeping the peace. In 2018, Russia opposed a UN General Assembly resolution to withdraw its military forces from Transnistria (link). Winning Ukraine and Moldova, Serbia could have been enticed to invade Kosovo, and possibly, Bosnia and Herzegovina, with the support they might have received from Russia. The silence of the West could have questioned America's credibility, and the low casualties of the war would have preserved Russia's moral high ground. In the end, Russian Empire would have reemerged and, through a domino effect, the People’s Republic of China would have likely summoned the courage to take over the Republic of China. Finally, all of these developments could have had a ripple effect on the Global South and non-aligned countries like India. Now the question is why did a superpower like Russia not achieve a decisive victory against Ukraine, which is five times smaller in manpower, ten times smaller in the air force, and has a third of Russia’s artillery (link).
Some analysts responded that the Ukrainians' extraordinary resistance and resilience (link), the Russian Armed Forces’ shortfalls (link), and the Western alliance's unity and cohesion (link) caused miscalculations in Kremlin. But why did Putin make such a miscalculation? Why did he assume that Ukrainians would welcome Russian soldiers? Why did he believe that the Russian Armed Forces could occupy a country with 44 million people and an area equal to the combined size of Germany and Great Britain, within three days? Why did Putin think European countries, the US, Japan, Australia, and Canada, would not react firmly? One answer is that maybe Putin's inner circle deceived him, as the COVID-19 quarantine made him more dependent on this inner circle (link). But still, the question is why did his trusted inner circle make such a mistake? And on a broader level, why did many other outsiders, some of whom were likely educated in Political Science, think that the Russian Armed Forces could have achieved their goals? These two recent trends, decentralization of technology and transnationalisation of global sanctions, might be the answer.
Technology and Decentralization
New technologies have changed the way wars are fought. The core of this change is decentralization, which has enabled non-professionals to do things that only experts could do before. One set of examples are weapons like anti-personnel drones, like Switchblade 300, obtainable from normal e-commerce platforms, can be carried in a backpack (weighted 2.5 Kilogram), and can be paired with a smartphone app (link). These weapons are more like a plug-and-play device, are easy to set up, and needs minimum training (link). Shoulder-launched anti-tank weapons or man-portable air defense systems are examples of these user-friendly devices.
Another set of examples is the civilian devices that can be applied in war zones. For example, commercial entities, like SpaceX or other commercial space companies, provided services that facilitates war efforts can; satellite internet spoiled Russia's plan to silence Ukrainians and thwarted the bombing of Ukrainian telecommunication towers; social media prevented the spread of false information by Russians; mobile applications that citizens use to provide information about the location of enemy soldiers (link); internet platforms, such as ukraine-helpers.com, not only identifies the nearest humanitarian aid depots for people globally but also provides the necessary information to volunteers who want to join the armed forces of Ukraine (link); cell phone cameras document war crimes, even in the smallest and most remote areas (link) mobile apps like Diia that enable citizens to financially support soldiers or report property damage (link).
Here are more examples: Airbnb decided to fund short-term housing for 100,000 Ukrainians who were fleeing the country (link); Ukraine officials have mobilized thousands of volunteers to wage a digital war against Russia which created a cyber army with 250,000 volunteers in the world’s first cyber war (link); Cryptocurrencies helped citizens make donations to Ukraine’s official government wallet (link); With these decentralized platforms, the images we had of civilians as defenseless that are only looking for asylum are no longer true. Russia had to spend hefty sums of money to produce the same results, yet their efforts would not work as effectively as what motivated ordinary citizens do, owing to two reasons: First, risking lives cannot be sufficiently compensated by material rewards. This is why Russia has a shortage of soldiers (link) while polls show that at some point, up to 70 percent approved Putin (link); Second, when a country requires innovation and creativity, spending money does not go a long way. This is why we saw that in this war, Ukrainians were more innovative than Russians (link). These decentralized efforts, happened by new decentralized technologies need an overarching discourse that can unify them. A powerful discourse is a necessary tool to mobilize citizens in an effective way.
Sanction in an era of Increased Interdependencies
Putin’s other major mistake was underestimating the severity, extent, and more importantly the speed with which the West imposed sanctions. In less than a week, sanctions were imposed that took years for others. In some of them, such as the Nord Stream pipeline, it was hardly expected just before the invasion. The comments made by German officials before the war hinted at inaction (link). In other cases, such as the FIFA sanction, there was no clue even a week before. This shows that such decisions were made within a short span of time, propelled by the severity of the situation and the power of the discourse that imbue the importance of territorial integrity and political independence.
Some of these sanctions were imposed by the public informally. For example, Roman Abramovich, the Russian owner of Chelsea Football Club was forced to quit the club due to the social and psychological atmosphere that has been emerged after the invasion (link); Several cafes, retailers, and chain stores worldwide have decided not to serve Russian food and drinks (link); Renault, which had decided to return to Russia, revised its decision owing to pressure of public opinion (link). It seems that social responsibility is taken seriously by investors and retailers. This has many lessons for countries like China which thinks they can separate business from values (link). The public discourse will have more effect because of this growing mutual interdependencies and has more implications for global security.
Although Europe has not yet been able to wean itself off Russian energy, everybody knows that Europe buys € 1 billion worth of energy from Russia every day since the beginning of the war, and Germany has the largest share (link). This certainly impacts Germany’s public image and Europe’s in general. As the EU tries to promote a moral image of itself, it must feel social pressure and must work harder to free itself from Russian energy. The driving force of the discourse of territorial integrity and political independence is getting things done more smoothly than if it would have been a normal bureaucratic decision. Now, Russia's main problem may not be the war in Ukraine but these transnational and international sanctions. If Russia wants to avoid ending up like North Korea or Venezuela, it should find a way to lift these sanctions. Given that many war crimes are going to be documented (link), as long as Putin is in power, diplomatic efforts to lift these sanctions will be minimal.
Both of the above-mentioned miscalculations, decentralized technologies and transnational sanctions indicate that discourse is an important player on the battlefield. In the weeks leading up to Russia's military invasion, the Kremlin repeatedly denied the US allegations that Russia had decided to attack Ukraine, calling them provocative and inaccurate. Many European intelligence agencies, and even Ukrainian President Zelensky, considered them as such (link). After the war began and the first Russian soldier set foot on the Ukrainian territory, Russia lost its credibility and also the internal logic of its security discourse. As said earlier, discourse is made and controlled by power, but the internal logic and the surrounding events are also important. Now, China must probe into people in Taiwan and around the world to see whether they regard its invasion of Taiwan as occupation or reunification. The severity of sanctions and the resilience of people will heavily depend on it which is more important now because of these decentralized technologies and the transnational interdependencies.